Nzeka Biyela’s business lockdown story begins, ends and restarts with gin. When the pandemic hit, the fledgling craft gin business the dynamic 32-year-old South African started with her business partner, which had been riding the crest of a wave, hit the wall. The country’s early super-strict COVID restrictions included a ban, lasting several weeks, on the sale of alcohol.
“We tried selling hand sanitizer. We had to cut staff and salaries. We did whatever we could to sustain the business.” But other forces were also in play. Management issues beyond their control resulted in the liquidation of their craft gin brand.
Deterred? Not for long. Substituting woman for “man” and she for “he,” the resulting transition brings to mind the Martin Luther King, Jr. quote, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
Biyela says, “We saw it as an opportunity to start afresh. We were forced into it, really. But we had a vision.”
The vision saw them staying with gin. But they thought right out of the box; Biyela is into hiking, jogging, going to the gym and eating healthy. They were aware of the U.S. and European success of hard seltzer — “refreshing, low-cal, no sugar.” Also of the keto and low-carb trend. And that in Europe, two-thirds of people say they’re trying to lower their sugar content, sugar having taken over from fat in the “dietary demon” stakes.
The Gin and Soda Vision
Their vision was “on purpose very different,” she says.
They wouldn’t do another craft gin, “which people don’t buy for every day or to drink at the casual barbecue, but usually for a gift or a treat. Craft gins are typically small batch and much pricier than a premium gin.”
Tapping into this, their idea was to create a premium gin range to sit in the same space as established favorites Hendrick’s, Bombay Sapphire and Tanqueray London Dry. And the biggie: what they are marketing as a world first. “The world’s only gin that mixes with soda water and gives you that oh-so-perfect G&T flavour,” to quote their ad promise.
Perfect for those of us who, like this writer, would relish a G&T or gin and tonic (or three) but don’t drink it knowing your average little bottle of tonic water has six to eight teaspoons of sugar hidden in it.
The Gin Story
“For a gin to be classified as gin, it needs to have juniper berries,” Biyela says when I ask her to fill in some of the gaps and explain their range.
“A London Dry doesn’t have too many botanicals. It is juniper-dominated, often resulting in a piney flavour with, depending on the distiller or the gin, other supporting ingredients.” For London Dry’s range of three gins, it has a distinct citrus body.
“New Western gins (their three gin range includes two of these) usually have a gentler juniper influence, allowing other ingredients to drive the flavour.
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“With London Dry gins, all ingredients are added before distillation. Nothing other than water — to get to the right alcohol percent (42% in South Africa) — is added after distillation.”
They launched the MOOD Gin in October. The Classic is their London Dry. The Pink and Amber are both New Western-style, defined — I discovered while researching for this article — by artistic “flavour” freedom, which allows botanicals, aromatics and infusions, to share the stage with, even upstage, the juniper berry.
Their marketing is fun, young, bold, and inspired by cult marketing guru Seth Godin’s purple cow methodology, which warns against being boring. “Our brand and branding are deliberately colorful. We wanted to stand out on the shelf. The purple cow in the sea of brown cows…”
Their current bottle packaging is a collaboration with local talent that is exclusive to the retailer Makro. The three illustrated limited edition bottles are available while supplies last.
They worked, she says, for three months solid with their recipe developer in the lab. Tasting. Adding botanicals here, subtracting them there. Among many others, juniper, orange peel and cardamom for the Classic, rose geranium and pinotage (the South African wine grape) skins for the Pink and honeybush, angelica root, orange peel for the Amber. Refining. “Lots of trial and error,” says Biyela.
Ultimately, the trio of gins needed to tick three boxes. Each had to taste right neat.
Each had to taste right with soda or sparkling water. And each needed to go well with tonic, a la traditional gin and tonic, for the purists.
The Biyela Story
To amble through the relevant bits Biyela’s life-to-gin — she was born in the rural Zululand township of Esikhaleni in King Cetshwayo District in KwaZulu-Natal, near the small industrial port city of Richards Bay. Her mom was headmistress of a small school and her dad had a taxi business.
Clearly academic with her family valuing education, when it came time for high school, Biyela was sent as a boarder to an exclusive school for girls in Durban. On career day, when companies and universities send representatives to share higher education and career options and woo learners, Stellenbosch University — on the other side of the country and in the Cape Winelands — stood out for her. Specifically, their less-conventional options spoke to her. “They offered a military academy and also winemaking (viticulture and oenology).”
Biyela knew little about wine and had no interest in drinking alcohol. It wasn’t a family tradition. But winemaking sounded interesting, so she stepped into the unknown.
But after a year of physics, chemistry and theory overload, she knew it wasn’t for her. She visited the student advisory centre and after a couple of assessment tests, switched to a bachelor’s in human resources management. This didn’t grab her either. “But I didn’t want to keep chopping and changing.”
So she persevered and got her degree.
Then enrolled at the University of Cape Town (UCT) for a post-grad diploma in management, specializing in entrepreneurship. “Which was the best learning I ever experienced.” And which was to define her life going forward.
“You’re thrown into networking sessions. It’s real-life assimilation. Immediately you form a group you’ll be with for the year.”
Everything you learn in the classroom, you apply, she says. “You draw up a business plan with your fellow student partners. Your business has to be product-based, not a service. You launch to students and beyond. The course has churned out any number of successful businesses.”
Momentum, she says, starts high. It requires stamina to keep going. She found herself in a group with a high-flyer like herself. “Rob Heyns and I were the last two standing.”
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He would become her business partner in several enterprises going forward, including their craft gin venture and their new premium gin (ad)venture now unfolding.
“We matched each other’s work ethic. We were both overachievers. Wanted to be best.”
The past few years have seen them on separate career paths, but with convergences and collaborations.
The Road to Success
They went into business together for the first time in 2012. Both had full-time jobs, but on the side, they launched an e-commerce craft beer “store.” Not making beer, but curating monthly deliveries, adding food pairings to go with the craft beers and distributing orders to customers. Two years in, they sold the business to South African online retailer Yuppiechef.
After that, Biyela worked with some big-name companies doing things like international brand equity management.
“Then in 2017, I got a call from Rob. He said, ‘Hey listen, craft gin is becoming a big thing.’ He suggested we look into it. We felt in a sense, it was a saturated space. We had some great ideas but was there a place for another craft gin?”
To test the market, they decided on a crowdfunding campaign approach. “We offered rewards. We pre-sold our gin. It proved very successful for us.”
She talks about campaigns. And influencers. And having a great product with a story. And she tells me with passion about plateaus and dips and tipping points. Watching for them. Adapting. Changing rewards.
Then came COVID. Lockdown. And the story shared below.
“We knew we couldn’t launch this time with crowdfunding. The environment had changed and with so many people struggling, it didn’t seem right.”
So this time, “we’re bootstrapping,” Biyela says. The “we” she references includes her two partners Rob Heyns and entrepreneur-strategist Matt Schaal.
Now, with uncertainty being the only certainty, Maya Angelou’s words could have been written for Biyela, her team and their entrepreneurial adventure. “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”
Life served up lemons. They let gin be their tonic.
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